Today, I think a lot about Audre Lorde and pain, which she said is a part of living. If you don’t know pain, you’re not alive, which is different than saying pain is its own reason for being. (It is also different than saying life is pain, even though it feels that way sometimes.) I think about this when I teach kids how to run and stretch, which is one way of helping them be in space and time (if they want that help, if they’re ready for it, if they even need it). Muscles can’t grow without hurting, and generally speaking, if you’re a kid you have some growing to do.
It’s tricky. I think a lot about how to help my students name, hold, and heal the kind of pain Lorde talks about. This is very different than causing it, naming it for them, or asking them to hold mine, and because right now my students are many different kinds of people in many different classrooms (a middle school, a jail, a university; online and off), ultimately this is an active, glittering hope for everyone’s futures. (On the days when I’m tired or stubborn and just want to protect everyone anyway, or when there’s an active shooter drill, we listen to Sun Ra. “I have a potent degree of love that is so unwise in one world,” he says, “that it is wisdom in another.”)
It’s especially tricky when you’re also encouraging kids to clock injustice and act against it (which is not an agenda; it’s a pedagogical practice), because to some of them, most immediately this looks like acting against you. (If you’re white, like I am. If you go by “Doctor,” like I do.) And you know what? In broken systems like ours, often that’s a solid instinct, and so often, I get it. I want students to trust their guts. I also want them to know when a teacher is encouraging them to show up and to take their space. This goes back to Lorde, because knowing the difference between the two is vital. And it goes back to love, because I haven’t always known the difference myself.
While the actual action of it is not a good fit for me, today, I think a lot about Chip Delany’s All-Hands-Raised technique anyway. In many of his classrooms at CUNY, he asked every student to raise their hands for every question, whether they knew the answer or not. If they knew, great—and if they didn’t, they could say more about what they didn’t understand, or they could popcorn it to someone else in the room: also great. “I’m not sure, but I’m wondering what Person X thinks.” “Don’t you realize,” Chip says in Frederick Barney Taylor’s Polymath documentary, “that every time you don’t answer a question, you’re learning something? You’re learning to make do with what you’ve got … you’re learning to take it.” Obviously, this is a complicated dynamic, but the core of it is, I think, a golden truth. When we do similar exercises in my classrooms, I remind students about the iceberg principle (there’s always a lot happening under the surface, for everyone) and also that outside of the classroom, I consider myself an introvert. Sometimes speaking up is easy, and sometimes it’s hard. How does your body feel when you do it?
A while ago I realized that when tell kids I also teach at the jail, many of them think that means I’m a guard. More recently, a student handed me a poem about how I didn’t understand violence against people of color in this country, and okay: maybe you don’t know me very well, but also: you’re not wrong. There are things I can’t know. There are rooms that aren’t for me. We talked about it. I’m writing about this because it’s hard.
Another thing about pain is it can be really pretty. I’ve lived in places shimmering with pain—not identically to you, reader, but probably similarly—and I stayed, for practical reasons but also because pain, when you are in it like a dull roar (as opposed to a sliced artery, as opposed to generationally) can be lovely to watch or even feel, like John Ott’s time-lapse footage of flowers blooming in the 1950s. It can also be exhausting, in a way that feels like you must also be helping. You must be making it easier for yourself or someone else, somewhere. When you know you are not, you must unstick. Right now, when I need to unstick, I stand in my studio apartment and listen to Brian Eno’s “The True Wheel.” I know I’m growing because I used to lie down when I did it.
I think of Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector’s book that could be about being alive, being conscious, or living differently. It is frequently described as a spiderweb. The spider is never mentioned. As Lispector says, in Stefan Tobler’s translation, “I know that after you read me it’s hard to reproduce my song by ear, it’s not possible to sing it without having learned it by heart. And how can you learn something by heart if it has no story?” This too is painful. Pain haloes or sparks or numbs, and in this way it is a spectacle, not a story. It is now, it is now, it is now. (Last fall at the ice cream shop after school, I remember a kid clutching a photograph of a mountain and crying. “It isn’t the actual mountain!” he told me. “It’s a picture!” His mom sat with him and rubbed his back.)
I think a lot about how to name pain without exploding or colonizing it. I think about Paul Eluard’s “To Make Live,” which my friend Jack posted in translation on the internet. “A little bit of sleep,” it says, “Brought back their future sun. / They lasted and they knew that living does continue.” Then a break, then “They were only a few / Suddenly they were a multitude // This is of all times.” Nate Marshall’s poem “Landless Acknowledgement,” recently published at Split Lip Magazine, is here too. “what is a homeland for me? maybe a boat?” Maybe.
Audre Lorde says that the hurt we feel from working and struggling is important because it teaches us how to transcend pain, and by extension, how it is directed towards some bodies and not others. I care about this every day. “The only kind of pain that is intolerable,” Lorde says, “is pain that is wasteful, pain from which we do not learn.” To be clear, I don’t push pain on my students! And I don’t ask them to share my past struggles. They don’t know that my left eyebrow is also a scar from falling into a brick wall after an action. They don’t know, because it doesn’t matter anymore. It isn’t a proof. It’s my eyebrow.
But pain comes up in our stories. It comes up in our lives, often it is our world, and if we pretend otherwise, we are not equipping ourselves to shift. To heal. I think of KC Green’s comic about the little dog drinking coffee at the table in the room on fire. “This is fine,” the dog says. Most adults I know laugh at those two images, and most kids don’t. Kids can specifically imagine what happens next, and when they do it’s uncomfortable. Being able to imagine that end, and admitting that you are, is a strength, not only narratively but because it means you know you are not now the dog in the burning house. You know you could be a helper. You can raise your hand. When adults say they can’t imagine, I am awfully disappointed.
It is also important to say that it’s possible to sit with pain without describing it, or trying to fix it. While of course sometimes this numbs us to what’s actually intolerable, more often it builds our endurance or stops internal gaslighting. (The difference between “That sounds really hard. What’s our next step?” and “Get yourself together!” can be huge.) I think about this when I’m riding the train at Denver International Airport. “Please, hold on,” it says. “Please, hold on.” And I thought about it during my last two years of graduate school, which were so lonely. Eventually I felt like I couldn’t laugh or cry because I hadn’t looked at anyone in days, I hadn’t touched anyone, and so I started going near-obsessively to movies. I knew this wouldn’t fix my loneliness, but it helped me hold it. When you hold something, it isn’t you. I spent a lot of time taking pictures of the flowers in the movie theatre bathroom. They’re plastic, so they’re still there: turquoise, and purple, and blue. It can be funny to go back to something that hasn’t changed when you have.
Right now at night I’m reading Magda Szabó’s book Iza’s Ballad, translated by George Szirtes. In its beginning, World War II is over and one protagonist, Ettie, receives news that her husband Vince is about to die. The message is communicated wordlessly and clearly. Ettie has a piece of toast in her hand. Then, while the messenger Antal warms his hands on the stove, Ettie packs a bag of handkerchiefs, biscuits, and lemons. I love this scene because the lemons read bright and loud against the copper and fire described just earlier, and also because Ettie is refusing to let the pain swallow her. Lemons aren’t a metaphor for anything—they’re Vince’s favorites, and by bringing them to the clinic Ettie can remind herself that the meetings are not actually about her. They’re about him. When you hold something, it isn’t you. Later, the pain does swallow Ettie, and after that it doesn’t. Soon, it shifts entirely. “I am still learning,” Lorde says too, “to take joy in all the people I am.”
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